Stopping Pozuelo is Atlanta United’s challenge against Toronto

Toronto FC's Alejandro Pozuelo, left, controls the ball as New York Red Bulls' Kyle Duncan defends during the first half of an MLS soccer match, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020, in East Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Credit: Jessica Hill

Credit: Jessica Hill

Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo arguably is the front-runner to be named the MVP in MLS.

He ranks first in assists (10) and shot-creating actions, fourth in goals (8) and goal-creating actions and his team is first in the Supporters' Shield standings with 38 points, three more than the next best team, Philadelphia.

He also is job No. 1 for Atlanta United when the teams play Sunday in Toronto’s temporary COVID-19 home in Connecticut.

If Atlanta United (19 points) is to stay in the 10th and final playoff spot in the East, it likely will need at least one point Sunday or possibly three, depending upon the weekend’s other results.

Getting that point will mean slowing Pozuelo.

“We know he’s a clever player and very good,” interim manager Stephen Glass said. “We are aware of it, hopefully will be ready for it.”

Centerback Miles Robinson couldn’t name another player the team who has played this season who is similar to Pozuelo. The closest may be Miami’s Rodolfo Pizarro. He has two assists in three games against the Five Stripes. He didn’t play in Wednesday’s game.

Pozuelo is listed as a midfielder, but has free reign to roam the field, looking for holes in the defense that can be exploited. In addition to being a deft passer, he can score and isn’t one-dimensional. Like Josef Martinez did when he won the MVP in 2018, Pozuelo can score with either foot or his head, such as the winning goal against Philadelphia on Oct. 3.

Atlanta United was very good at limiting the influence of the game’s best playmakers its first two season under manager Gerardo Martino. The team would either try to deny service to that player by pressing opponents or by putting someone between the ball and that player at all times. Because Pozuelo drifts all over the field, monitoring him and trying to deny him the ball or space will be a team effort, according to Robinson.

Pozuelo has started all 18 of Toronto’s games this season. It’s possible that he could be rested for this one. Even without him, Toronto has enough quality to win with players such as Ayo Akinola (8 goals), Richie Laryea (4 goals) and Pablo Piatti (3 goals).

If he does play, Pozuelo is most dangerous when he can receive the ball facing defenders. To stop that, midfielder Mo Adams, who said Pozuelo is the best player in MLS, noted they must try to make him receive the ball with his back to the goal.

“Can’t give him too much space in terms of getting his head up and splitting lines with passes,” he said.

Atlanta United can take space away by pressing Toronto when it has the ball and maintaining tight lines on defense and in the midfield.

“If our back four keeps pressing up the field like we have been, hopefully he doesn’t have time on the ball and that’s what we are going to try to do,” Robinson said.

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Atlanta United coming games

Sunday at Toronto (6-2-4) in Hartford, Conn., 7:30 p.m., FSSE

Oct. 24 vs. D.C. United (2-5-5), 4 p.m., FSSE

Oct. 28 at Orlando (6-2-4), 7:30 p.m., FS1

Nov. 1 vs. Cincinnati (3-6-3), 7 p.m., FSSE

Nov. 8 at Columbus (8-1-3), 3:30 p.m., FSSE

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